By Patti Carlyle
Summer seems an incongruent time to ponder life’s harder questions. Long and brutal winters in the Rust Belt present a more fitting time to look inward, everything thickly coated in Suicide Gray. Thoughts deepen and even darken, and it makes sense. By contrast the warm, sparkling days of Cleveland’s early summer are arguably the most beautiful, demanding a certain carefree hubris. But instead of fish tacos on patios, gin and tonics, afternoon sex or campfire lazing, I slid into a dizzying circular conversation with myself. Depression or divorce?
Orange barrels rush past the window, a translucent blur of stout, gaudy grandmas. Squinting into the distance looking for some broad blinking arrow, I try to predict lane changes. Sit up straight, hands at ten and two. The speedometer needle sinks left and I sharpen my focus. Rumble strips hyphenate the road mid-lane, a startling warning of a new traffic pattern. A driver for over 20 years, I still tense up in construction zones, still roll my eyes when the barrels begin gossiping in medians each spring.
And as the work begins each summer, I find myself muttering ‘didn’t we just do this?’
Depression or divorce? For two summers, this alliterative question worried a groove into my journals and tortured my therapist. Amused at my binary thinking and familiar with my white knuckle grip on a fanned deck of pessimistic options, he suggested that I refrain from applying intellect and instead feel my way through. Deep thought and analysis might not save my marriage, and I may still need clinical intervention. Worst case? Both. That’s how I saw it: terrible options all.
Predictive pessimism doesn’t protect me from much, though. I need to do before I know much of anything. Lowering myself into the tides of experience, sometimes the water is fine and frolicking like a four-year-old is the only appropriate response. But sometimes the relentless and punishing waves are frigid and teeming with jellyfish. Bystanders can hear me screaming from shore.
Ending my marriage to experience divorce is an obviously myopic move. Eyeballs deep in the struggle, I flailed and clawed for a cognitive buoy. The goal was simple: tease out which was cause and which effect. Is my marriage foundationally broken, resulting in situational depression? Or is my fundamental problem clinical, my relationship merely its casualty?
The gaudy grandmas have waddled off. Concrete lane dividers stand shoulder to shoulder in their place. The effect is menacingly close. My phone is face down on the console and I poke a finger at the dash, silencing the radio. Any distraction could have me trailing sparks along the barricade wall or sliding onto the gravelly shoulder. Adjust the mirrors and glance back.
I started circling the drain a few years ago. The well-received launch of my alternative health practice had me so certain. This was my calling. I might have been suspicious when the aspects of entrepreneurial adventure I enjoyed most turned out to be designing the website and writing the blog. After shuttering the business in 2012, I tumbled into a shame vortex. Struggling to make sense of how I had misread myself so terrifically, I cocooned. It took months of shame and denial before finally deciding to close, abandoning years of training, the encouragement of friends and family and a lot of invested capital.
Spectacular failure slid quickly into desperate irony. I no longer trusted myself, yet the only place I was comfortable was…by myself. Friendships fell apart while I wandered my head, poking into dim and tender spaces. My marriage wobbled along a divergent fault line we’d been eyeing warily for years. A final isolating punishment, I pulled out the black sheep suit I slip into for family gatherings and inked it an impossible shade of pitch.
Fines doubled for speeding in work zones. Careful to slow down with workers present, but less concerned for my own safety. The concrete barricades form a tunnel; no shoulder, no double lines, no room for error. The occasional urge to jerk the wheel is curbed only by dread of the inhumane mess I’d leave behind.
I never called it depression. There was good reason to be upset. Maybe even good reason to inflict masochistic self-punishment. Like setting out to face all the times I had lied to myself, all the ways I had abandoned myself. Brene Brown jokes about embracing her breakdown spiritual awakening from the safe distance and comfort of having come out stronger on the other side. Brazenly confident I would do the same, I chose an even more cocky term: transformation.
If an insect can go from crawling to airborne in a mere three weeks, surely a determined, intelligent human could remake herself in 12 months. I added centering prayer, a nutrition overhaul and medical intuition to my regular therapy regimen. I recommitted to managing my addiction and not numbing out. Over resourced and bootstrapped, I got on with the goddamn transformation, imagining the day I might emerge, wait beatifically for my wings to dry, and lift off effortlessly, reborn. Life’s spectre would rearrange itself into some thing bright and, hopefully, bearable.
Twelve months came and went; fast in duration, slow in progress. My husband hung in with me. Barely. I wondered at the time if I was too pathetic to leave. He dodged my projected psychological bile; I managed to restrain myself from running him down in my misery. I didn’t realize what was happening until I read what someone else had written. Allie Brosh, as usual, left me breathless with recognition:
Perhaps it was because I lacked the emotional depth necessary to panic, or maybe my predicament didn’t feel dramatic enough to make me suspicious, but I somehow managed to convince myself that everything was still under my control right up until I noticed myself wishing that nothing loved me so I wouldn’t feel obligated to keep existing.
The realization left me shaken. White-knuckled, I tried harder. To go to therapy. To resolve old traumas. To want to keep breathing. More time passed. In fact, the passage of time was the only thing that seemed to dissolve the untimely summer fog of Suicide Gray.
What of The Transformation? I never sorted it all out, never dried my wings under a warm and gentle sun. Instead, as the radiators began to warm our house, the chilly spaces between my husband and I warmed, too. I felt, just…better. I fanned my fingers out, relieved and greedy to abandon any thought of the cold that had come before. My slush-crusted heart was so desperate to thaw, it didn’t occur to me to wonder if the chill might return.
Until it did. I spent the summer of 2014 similarly twisting and flailing in a weepy, irritable tempest of shame. Confidence ebbed until my only daily requisite was to just keep breathing. Months later, the magic radiators fixed everything again. This time my marriage entered a depth and acceptance it lacked before, and as I settled into its comfort, I puzzled to remember what had been so bad. I got on with life like it was normal.
Reduced speed signs are covered in tarps. The giant blinking marquee warns of upcoming roadwork. Expect delays. Consider making alternate plans.
All this March and April, I was twitchier than usual, quicker to anger. Volunteer commitments hit an apex that nearly broke me. I fell into a slow, seductive dance with indolence and apathy. Laundry sat unfolded. Work became a tears-inducing grind. My daughter’s camp forms went unfiled for months, resulting in increasingly hostile email reminders.
The circular conversations resumed: depression or divorce? Will this summer be it, the time he finally leaves? Will I be the one making for the exit? Nevermind that things had been solid since the fall. Worry crept in silently, crawling into a spot on my chest like an infant-suffocating cat.
Anxiety preceding this summer seems easily explained, given the last two summers of discontent. It was my therapist that pointed out the pattern. My most recent springtime tweak doesn’t alarm me much, but the clockwork predictability of the macro does. Because when my husband and I didn’t hit the marital skids a third time, the answer to the depression or divorce binary presented itself. It didn’t exactly come as a relief.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, as I sunk again into depression, my marriage launched another Olympic dive.
The smell of fresh tar is both oppressive and oddly comforting. Windows shut tight, warm-breath fingers reach in through the vents. The slow scraping blade of the pavement mill churns the roadway into pebbled meal and shoots it windward into an idling dumptruck. The truck lurches away, revealing uneven ruts and jagged nubs.
Depression scoops out your insides and tosses them to the winds. Realizing you are depressed is, in and of itself, depressing. Especially since I have been evading this particular diagnostic destiny since I was a child. In college, I took nail-biting note during an Abnormal Psychology lecture: initial depressive episodes usually occur in late adolescence into the early twenties. As I crept into adulthood, it felt safeish to exhale. Cautiously. When I turned 30, relief turned quickly to smug certainty that I had dodged the bullet. Certainty and fear made me blind to the markers that I recognize now only in retrospect. Perhaps the bright side is, as a doer, I have done depression and therefore have solid data. But I was stubborn. I did it the hard way for three years. Longer, if I am being honest. I wanted to be good and sure, apparently.
It seems ridiculous now, claiming health through diagnostic omission. Lacking a chart in a shrink’s office with my name, I was therefore safe and healthy? I suffered for a lot longer than necessary, and told myself that life was just this hard. That maybe I needed to build a capacity for happy. In darker moments, I shrugged off happy as something that I simply didn’t deserve.
Asphalt flakes are hauled in, hot and malleable and potent. Compactors crawl across the surface behind the paver. The base layer needs special attention, determining the right level, pitch and a durable foundation.
Summer can’t come to a close fast enough for me. Fall is my favorite time of year, more of a new beginning than January. Maybe it’s the obvious Back to School language, which for me always meant Back to Stability. During the summer as a child, I disappeared on my bike every day for hours, but the only sustained break I got from a weeping bipolar mother was a single week at summer camp in August.
Anxious summers stretch back further than I suspected.
I never noticed how I met each spring with dread. School meant sports, structure and good grades praise. The summer was one long, unpredictable exercise in emotional endurance. Mom flitted between hypomania and depression the way the hummingbirds darted into flowers planted during her ever shorter up periods.
Like this year’s marriage anxiety – explainable based on history – my regular summer dips seem a reasonable enough response to years of traumatic exposure. Until the psychiatrist – holding a chart with your name – mentions that summer-specific depression is a common marker for bipolar disorder. And two decades of held breath catches in your throat, a choked gasp of resignation and grief.
This news leaves me wondering at my lack of surprise, and surprised at my anger. As a teenager, I was snobbishly, ridiculously careful about drinking, turned my nose up in self-righteous disgust at drugs, and generally avoided risky behavior. I never allowed myself to lose control. If I could just be a good enough girl, maybe I could escape the mentally unstable and addicted future that surely awaited me. It’s plate-shatteringly-infuriating, how I did everything ‘right’ but couldn’t outrun genetic fate.
Mental illness has a sniper’s range and a patient calm to match. The blinking construction light I trail may as well be a target. The only choice is to continue down this one-way street, hoping I don’t get taken out for good. There are no exit ramps, no u-turns. Maybe there are rest areas, and they will be enough.
Straight and bright lines point the way, and it’s easy to be optimistic: smooth sailing ahead. It’s hard to imagine this pavement, gorgeous and pressed perfect, was once bleached, cracked and crumbling. But it was, and it will be again. For now the road is long and open, the conditions clear.
Until it is dug up again, same time next year.
Patti Carlyle writes about divergent inner and outer worlds. Essays on feminism, culture, mental health, relationships and vulnerability appear on the-broad-side.com